It was fortunate the hyperspace journey between Bal and Naboo was short. Otherwise Vader knew he would have gone mad with worry. He kept checking the Force obsessively for any change in Luke's presence, but it remained the same. His son was in danger.
His mind was filling with memories of all the moments he had shared with Luke. The moment when Obi-Wan had told him that Luke was his son. The night that Luke had first called him 'Father'. The time he'd taught him how to weld his first starship engine back together ...
How could he have been so stupid as to send his son to Naboo without so much as a bodyguard? He'd been too wrapped up in his own insecurities. Too consumed with the idea of Luke dying at his own hand to consider the other explanations for his dream.
When his ship emerged from hyperspace, the familiar blue and green surface of Naboo appeared out the front viewscreen. He didn't need directions to find Luke. His presence was screaming at him now.
As he accelerated towards the orbiting palace, he reached out along their link.
There was nothing. Vader glared at the controls, wishing his worry would somehow make the engine go faster.
Vader desperately tried to calm himself. His son must be still alive, or he wouldn't sense his presence at all. So why wasn't he responding?
There was a shield guarding the hangar bay. He grabbed the trigger and sent missiles into the power generators on either side. The energy field dissolved just as his ship came rushing through.
He was going too fast to make a proper landing. His ship skidded on the floor, sending sparks everywhere. He had the cockpit open before it had even stopped.
There was a crowd of people in the hangar, but his focus was solely on the one lying on the floor. He used the Force to shove stormtroopers out of the way and moved quickly to his son's side. His limp body was being cradled by Pooja, while a young man stood guarding them protectively.
For a moment, he thought he was too late. He started bargaining desperately with the Force, offering to do anything, anything, in exchange for his son's life. But when Pooja met his desperate gaze, there was only relief in her tear-filled eyes.
"Oh, thank the Force! We need to get him to a medcenter!"
Vader bent down and picked Luke up as gently as he could manage.
Vader glanced briefly at the speaker. It was Governor Uthon, an ambitious but easily manipulated puppet that Palpatine considered a safe choice to watch over Naboo.
"He was accidentally hit with a stun blast," the governor explained. "He'll come around any second now."
Vader had been studying his son's body while the governor was speaking. There was a smoking hole in Luke's right arm that definitely wasn't the result of a stun blast. A nasty bruise was forming above his temple. There was an uncontrollable anger growing in Vader's chest as he surveyed this damage. Someone had dared hurt his son.
"Accidentally!" Pooja flew at Uthon like she was going to strangle him with her bare hands. "You shot him, you monster!"
The younger man wrapped his arms around her, holding her away from Uthon. "There's no time, Pooja," he said, gently. He kept his arm around her and turned to Vader. "We can take my ship," he said, pointing at the craft behind him. "I suggest the medcenter at the royal palace."
Vader didn't know who this young man was, but he was refreshingly rational. "Take him." He passed Luke into the man's arms. "Go quickly! I will join you in a few minutes."
He and Pooja obeyed immediately. As his ship lifted off the hangar bay floor, Vader turned on the governor. The man looked vaguely confused. But Vader had noticed something else while they'd been speaking. He was holding a blaster. And unlike the stormtrooper's weapons, it was not set to stun.
He started to back away, raising his hands. "This was all a misunderstanding."
"Misunderstanding?" Vader drew his lightsaber, and the blade glowed red across the distance between himself and the governor. The troopers had begun to give them a very wide space. "You are fortunate I don't have the time to cut you apart, piece by piece!"
"I have irrefutable evidence that Senator Naberrie is a Rebel! Your son put himself in harm's way!"
It was all lies. Every word. This wasn't anywhere near a satisfying revenge, but time was short. He raised his hand, curling invisible fingers around the man's throat, and dragged the governor towards him. A single stroke of his sword, and the man lay dead at the feet of the watching troopers.
Vader stared at the corpse, wishing that had actually sated some of his anger. But even choking every last person in this orbiting palace wouldn't have been a drop of water on that smoldering fire.
He turned for the nearest ship, not bothering with the snubfighter he'd arrived in. The landing gear had probably been fried in his hasty arrival.
As he flew out of the hangar, he glanced down at the controls and realized this was an armored transport ship. It was loaded with proton torpedoes. Purely on a whim, he looped around and located the power core on the vast orbiting structure. He fired a few torpedoes into the fuel cells and then accelerated towards the planet. A vast explosion filled the rear view screen.
The security at the royal palace didn't make any protest when Vader set the ship on a course for the hangar. He wondered why, at first, but it soon became clear when a bored voice crackled over the comlink.
"Welcome to the Royal Palace of Naboo, Governor Uthon. The Queen will be informed of your arrival."
"You will not inform the Queen," Vader said.
"I will not inform the Queen," the voice repeated.
"There is no ship coming into land. You only imagined it."
"I only imagined it."
Vader closed the link and concentrated on making a landing that would actually leave the ship still flyable. The hangar bay had not changed at all. It might have disturbed him, if he hadn't already been sick with worry for his son.
He brought the ship down near an exit and then started leaving the ship before the ramp had finished lowering. He didn't have time to bother with the guards, so he simply Force-pushed them out of the way when they started running to intercept him. The medcenter was only a short distance from the hangar bay, and the guards outside the doors did not try and stop him from entering. Pooja must have told them of his expected arrival.
He found Luke had been moved into a sterile surgery, where three medical droids were tending to his injuries. Pooja and the young man stood in a viewing area, separated from the surgery by a wall and several windows. They both turned as Vader entered the room.
"What are they doing?" Vader demanded, staring through the windows. He had to fight to stop himself from barging into the surgery.
"They said the blaster shot traveled through his forearm and damaged his artificial hand," Pooja said. "They can't repair it, so they are removing it."
Vader stretched out with the Force, seeking knowledge of Luke's condition for himself. Judging by his dulled sense of his son's mind, Luke must be under anesthetic. It was unbelievably frustrating to have nothing to do but watch the droids work.
He made an angry noise and suddenly turned on Pooja.
"I trusted you to take care of him!"
The young man stepped between them, protectively. "It wasn't her fault!"
Vader was about to reply, when he suddenly noticed something about this young man. He looked a little like Uthon.
"Who are you?" he demanded, already knowing the answer.
"Rarn!" Pooja was pushing him towards the door. "Go! Please!"
The young man didn't look like he was going anywhere, but regardless, Vader reached out a hand and lifted him up so they were on eye level. He didn't struggle against the invisible power that was holding him by the throat, but the fear was evident in his face.
"No!" Pooja shouted. "Please, Luke would be dead if it wasn't for him! Let him go!"
Vader didn't like it, but he had to admit she had a point. He released his remote grip, and Rarn fell to the ground. Pooja caught him, preventing him from a nasty tumble.
"I will spare your life," he said, pointing at Rarn. "I suppose you are not responsible for your father's crimes. But leave my sight before I change my mind."
"Go, Rarn," Pooja said to him. Her eyes had filled with tears again. "Wait for me. I'll be all right."
"I love you," he replied, becoming tearful himself. Pooja reached up to embrace him.
Vader grabbed him by the back of his tunic and forcibly shoved him out of the room before she could follow through. He then closed the door behind him and turned back to a frightened Pooja.
"Tell me everything! I want to know what happened to my son."
Pooja turned away from him, rubbing the side of her shoulder. He thought she was too fearful to speak, but she eventually replied in a defiant voice.
"I don't believe for one moment that Luke is your son. Anakin Skywalker would never behave like you."
Vader flinched at the sound of that name. Especially coming from Padmé's niece.
"That weak Jedi fool is dead," Vader said, angrily. "His only worthy act was to give up his life so I might be born in his place."
Pooja looked confused for a while, and then she said, "If that's true, then how can you claim to be Luke's father?"
"Luke was born to me. The Jedi was already dead by the hour that Luke graced the galaxy."
"But his name is Luke Skywalker," Pooja said.
"Luke will take on a new name when he joins the Order of the Sith."
"And a new personality?" Pooja was aghast.
Vader stared through the viewing windows, considering the question. He hadn't given that side of things much thought. His priority was to ensure Luke made it safely to adulthood, preferably without any more missing body parts. Then he could consider their next move.
"What happened to my aunt?"
Pooja had obviously taken his silence to mean yes.
"I am not here to discuss the past," Vader said in annoyance. "Tell me what happened to Luke!"
Pooja looked like she was going to argue, but then she changed her mind. Perhaps she didn't truly wish to know.
"Governor Uthon detected the calls Luke made to you on Bal. He thought it was me making contact with the Balin insurgency. He arrested us and ordered his troops to beat Luke. We managed to stop them by explaining Luke's relationship to you."
"You told him that Luke was my son?"
"Luke did. Uthon then went away and we found out later he was arranging to have us secretly killed. Then Rarn came to rescue us."
"By leading you into a firefight where you were vastly outnumbered by professional soldiers? That is not a rescue."
"We didn't have much choice!"
Any further discussion ended with the sound of the door opening behind them. It was a guard. He stared up at Vader with a look of sheer terror, before forcing himself to look at Pooja.
"Senator Naberrie, the Queen requests an audience."
Pooja nodded and the guard turned quickly and left. Then she gave Vader a glance, clearly knowing exactly what this conversation would be about.
"Officially, I am not here," Vader said.
"The Queen has to know the truth," Pooja said. "The whole truth. I would be committing treason if I didn't tell her."
"Very well." He met her gaze. "But your queen will remain silent."
"Yes," Pooja said. "I'm sure she will. She enjoys being among the living."
She left the room, and Vader turned back to regard Luke's progress. The droids had nearly completed the task of detaching his hand. His son was still sleeping peacefully under the anesthetic.
An urgent beeping noise suddenly filled the room, and Vader picked up his comlink. It was probably Admiral Wern or Commander CV. He had been meaning to call and request a status report himself, but spare moments were hard to come by.
When the blue hologram glowed to life, it was not one of his loyal subordinates. Quite the opposite. Vader had a sudden insight into how Pooja must have felt when she learned the Queen wanted to see her. How was he going to explain all this?
"Master," he said, simply. There was little else he could say.
"Lord Vader. Am I being too intrusive to ask where you are and why you are not on Bal?"
He sounded polite, yet somehow very dangerous. There was nothing he could say but the truth.
"I am on Naboo. Governor Uthon tried to kill my son."
"Luke sustained a blaster wound. He is currently undergoing medical treatment, but I will return to Bal as soon as possible."
Vader decided not to mention that he would be returning to Bal via Coruscant after seeing his son safely home.
His master was silent for a moment, and then he spoke in a disappointed tone. "It would have been for your own good if he had died. You understand that, don't you?"
Vader didn't reply.
"What has become of Uthon?" the Emperor asked.
"He is dead, Master," Vader said. It came out sounding more testy than he intended, but it was deeply insulting that his master had even asked that question. Did he really have so little faith in him?
"And what of the situation on Bal? I am hearing reports that General Okku has been assassinated by a stormtrooper and the troops are being withdrawn. Yet the Balin insurgents still appear to be among the living. How do you explain this?"
"General Okku did not submit to my authority. His death was necessary. The insurgents were a waste of our resources, as I was made aware that the Balin Ruling Council were our real enemies. They have been destroyed."
"Are you sure?"
Vader didn't know if he was asking if he was sure if they had all been destroyed, or if he was sure they were their real enemies. He was not at all certain about the former. It was quite possible that some had managed to escape, given his abrupt departure to see to Luke.
"Organa's daughter provided evidence that the Balin Ruling Council were behind the initial attacks on our ships," Vader said.
"So you made a strategic decision based on advice from a teenage girl?" He no longer sounded polite. He sounded genuinely confused. It was very rare for Palpatine to be genuine about anything.
"Master, the situation on Bal is under control. It has now been set on a path that will result in its transformation into a loyal, peaceful planet. I will soon return and ensure it remains on that path."
"Perhaps we should discuss this in person when you return to Coruscant, Lord Vader."
He didn't sound convinced. And he clearly already knew that he had been planning to accompany Luke back to Coruscant before returning to Bal.
"Very well, Master."
The Emperor gave one last disappointed shake of his head, and the hologram dissolved.
Someone was breathing. The sound was oddly comforting in its familiarity. Luke's eyes fluttered open, and he found he was lying on his side, covered by a soft white sheet. His mind felt fuzzy, as if he had been given pain medication. He rolled towards the sound of the breathing and found a familiar sight to match the familiar sound. His father.
Luke closed his eyes again, feeling memories flooding back.
"You're a coldhearted inhuman machine," Luke mumbled, as angrily as he could manage in his weak state. "I hate you."
"It is good to see you too." His father sounded amused.
"I'm serious," Luke said, rolling over further. His father was standing beside the bed, looking down. "You tried to turf me off on my mother's family without even -"
Luke suddenly realized he was in a medcenter. He lifted up the sheet and stared down at his body. He was wearing a thin hospital gown that left nothing to the imagination. There were bacta patches on his side and his left shoulder. It felt like there might be one on his head, too. And his right arm was ...
Luke suddenly lifted it out of the sheet and held it up.
"What happened to my hand?!" he demanded, glaring at his father. The stump was clamped and there was a bandage all the way up his arm that severely restricted the movement.
"You were shot in the arm," his father explained. "The blaster bolt short-circuited your artificial hand, and it had to be removed. They don't have a suitable match here."
"I was shot?" Luke looked aside, and more memories returned. Along with a wave of horrible fear. "Where's Pooja?! She's all right, isn't she?" Luke stared at his father, thinking he'd forgive him everything if only he'd say yes.
"She's fine," his father said. Luke sighed with relief. "I believe she has gone to her home to retrieve your belongings."
"And Artoo and Threepio?"
"I assume they are with your cousin."
"Where am I now?" Luke said, confused.
"The medcenter in the royal palace on Naboo."
"Really?" Luke said. "Then what are you doing here? I thought you were on Bal?"
"I was," his father said. "But, surprisingly enough, the sense of my son's immediate danger was enough motivation for me to leave."
"Don't give me that caring father thing," Luke said, raising an accusing eyebrow. "You were planning to throw me out! Just because I wouldn't go to school! I can't believe you were thinking of tossing everything aside after all the effort I've put into making this work."
"I was not planning on throwing you anywhere," his father said, indignant. "There is no need for such melodrama." He paused for a second and then said, "And what exactly do you mean by effort? The endless trouble you seem to get yourself into? Taking years off my life with your reckless stunts?"
"But you don't know about all the stuff I've chosen not to do," Luke said. "And not to mention all the things I put up with from you. Imagine if I decided to bail out just because you were having a bad day? We wouldn't have lasted a week."
"I bet you've been looking for an opportunity to get rid of me since the day we met," Luke said, turning his face into the pillow. "Well, good news, you've got your wish. I'll stay here." His voice broke on his last words. "At least they actually want me."
His father breathed through a couple of cycles and then said, "Have you quite finished?"
Luke didn't respond.
"You know very well that I would not have considered moving you here unless I had good reasons," his father said. "I will explain if you give me the opportunity. You should know that the only reason I am letting you lecture me like this is because you are injured. And because, for quite possibly the first time since I met you, the injuries are not your own fault."
Luke didn't get the chance to reply. The doorcom had started beeping.
"It's Pooja!" Luke said. He shuffled himself up into a sitting position, careful to use his left arm.
"I know." His father waved a hand towards the door, and it hissed open. Pooja gave his father a wary look as she entered, and his father stood aside to allow her to see Luke. She was followed by Threepio and Artoo. The shorter droid appeared fully functional, despite being hit by a stun blast. He was dragging Luke's suitcase behind him.
"Oh, you're awake!" Pooja came over and bent down to hug him. Luke awkwardly tried to return it, but it was a little difficult with a stump.
"I thought you'd been shot," Luke said.
"I was, but the blaster was set to stun. I'm all right now." She glanced back at his father. "The rest of the family are in my office. They want a chance to say goodbye to Luke."
"Goodbye?!" Luke stared at his father in shock. "Will you please tell me what's going on?"
"You and I must return to Coruscant as soon as possible," his father said.
"What happened to dumping me here?" Luke said, frowning.
"It is not safe. Not only for you, but also for your mother's family if you should remain." His father glanced at Pooja.
Luke followed his gaze, but Pooja didn't say anything to deny it. This was getting more confusing by the minute.
"Do you mean because of Governor Uthon?" Luke asked. "He won't touch us now that he knows I'm your son. Besides, can't you just fire him?"
Pooja looked uncomfortable at his words. His father remained silent for a few seconds before he replied.
"Uthon is dead. Along with everyone else who hurt you. His palace has been destroyed."
Luke gaped. "You killed him?"
"You think I would let him live when he did this to you?" His father waved a hand towards Luke's arm.
"You could have had him arrested," Luke said. "Even put in jail!"
"Perhaps I could have asked him to apologize and promise he'd never do it again," his father said, in a deeply sarcastic tone.
"Would you rather it became public knowledge that my son is a blood relative of the Naberrie family?" his father suggested. "I have enemies who would be very interested in that information."
His father didn't need to explain any further. Luke closed his eyes, feeling a pain that had nothing to do with his injuries. He wanted his family to be safe more than anything. But why did people have to be killed to achieve that?
"What about Rarn?" Luke asked, opening his eyes.
"He's fine," Pooja said quietly.
"Your cousin believes he can be trusted to remain silent," his father said. "He knows I will destroy him if he does not."
Luke reached up to rub his head, before realizing he had no hand to do it with. He let the stump drop back on the sheet. Rarn had lost his father. He didn't deserve that.
"Don't you ever think about the families of the people you kill?" Luke asked, staring at his father. "The ones left behind?"
"Are you suggesting I should have killed his son as well?"
Luke didn't know if his father was really that clueless, or if he was just being particularly irritating. Perhaps it was better than he didn't know.
"Well, seeing as you seem to have murdered everyone, there's no danger," Luke said, folding his one good arm across his chest. "I'm staying here."
"Luke, I don't want you to leave," Pooja said. "But I'm afraid you must. The media have become inflamed with the news of my arrest and the subsequent destruction of Uthon's palace."
Luke could only stare at his father in disbelief. "You destroyed his palace as well?!"
His father didn't bother to respond.
"It's not just the media on Naboo, either," Pooja said. "It's headlines on Coruscant. They will be following my every move for months. All it would take is one picture of you ..."
"But …" Luke sighed. He could see the logic. He'd very nearly ruined Pooja's career once. She'd almost been killed. He didn't want to think about what someone could do if they wanted to use his mother's family to take revenge against his father. As terrible as it was, he really did have to leave. He had barely started getting to know them, and now it could be goodbye forever.
"Did you tell the family about my father?" Luke asked, looking sadly at Pooja.
Pooja shook her head. "I don't think that would be wise. It would be an added layer of pain and worry that our grandparents do not need."
"Maybe you're right," Luke said wearily. He didn't like keeping the truth from people, but this was a truth that would be difficult for them to accept. "So what's the plan?" he asked, suddenly wanting to get the goodbyes over with as soon as possible. "I can get dressed and ready to leave now."
"We cannot be seen leaving here together," his father said. He pointed at Pooja. "You must arrange to clear and secure the corridors. Then Luke may go to your office to say goodbye to his family."
"My head of security will arrange it," Pooja agreed. "I will hold a press conference at the same time to distract the media."
"What are you going to say?" Luke asked, curious.
Pooja spoke as if she was addressing both him and his father. "That Governor Uthon is dead, due to an unfortunate accident at his palace that resulted in a power core overload. Naboo and the surrounding systems await the appointment of a new governor by the Emperor."
"That's not what happened," Luke said, frowning at his father. "Are you making her lie on your behalf to cover your tracks?"
"I took inspiration from your favorite excuse," his father said, dryly. "It was all an accident."
Luke could only sigh in response.
"I will go and make arrangements," Pooja said. "Luke, I will come back to say goodbye before I go to the press conference."
Luke gave a stiff nod. His father stared after Pooja as she left, and Luke used his distraction to try and reach some of the clothes that were folded beside his bed. When his father became aware of what he was doing, he started to move towards him.
"Can you wait outside?" Luke suggested.
His father studied him. "Are you sure you can manage by yourself?"
"I'm fine," he snapped, frowning at the idea of his father helping him get dressed. He'd rather walk around wrapped in a sheet.
"Very well. I will meet you on the ship after you have said goodbye to your family. It is the black transport shuttle in the main hangar."
Luke nodded once, not looking at his father. He half-wished he could insist that he wasn't coming, but he really had no choice now.
"Do you want Artoo and I to leave as well, Master Luke?" Threepio asked, as his father moved past them.
"No, I need you to stay and guard the door," Luke said, quietly. Once the door was closed, the droids turned around, giving him some privacy.
Luke peeled off the hospital gown, struggling to unhook it from his stiff right arm. He stared at the bandage, suddenly struck with the thought that he was lucky to be alive. That bolt could have burned straight through his arm and into his torso.
It was ironic, that after all the worrying he'd done about his father's demise, it was him that nearly ended up dead. Luke stared blankly at the wall, wondering what might have happened if he'd died. Would he have gone to some afterlife where his mother would be waiting for him? Would he have been reunited with Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru?
As wonderful as that would be, he didn't want to leave this life behind just yet. There were still so many things he wanted to do.
Luke pushed the thoughts of death from his mind, deciding he should move on with dressing. Trying to get his underwear, pants, and socks on one handed was tiring, but the real tricky part was getting his shirt over his heavily bandaged arm. It was a relief when he finally slipped into his boots and tried walking.
Halfway across the room, he caught sight of himself in a mirror above the basin. His hair was a matted and tousled mess and part of it appeared to have been cut off to accommodate the bacta patch across his temple. His face was pale and his eyes had dark circles underneath. He looked almost as bad as he was feeling.
Artoo rolled forward, whistling in concern.
"You don't look so great yourself, Artoo," Luke said, resting a hand on Artoo's dome. "I'm sorry you were shot. As soon as we're back on Coruscant, I promise I'll have you both looking brand new again."
Artoo made a series of whistles that sounded like he was protesting.
"Artoo says that you must be fully functional yourself before bothering with us," Threepio said. "I heartily agree with him."
Luke stared at his stump, seeing Artoo's point.
Pooja arrived a few seconds later.
"We're ready," she said. "The corridors have been sealed and cleared." She opened her arms, offering him a hug. "I guess this is it for us."
Luke moved into her embrace and returned it with one arm.
"Maybe I will still be able to visit you on Coruscant," Luke said. "Once this has all blown over."
Pooja released him and looked aside. "Luke, I haven't told anyone this yet, and it must remain a secret. The Queen has asked me to resign from the senate."
The smile faded from Luke's face. "What? Why?!"
"After we were arrested, your droids returned home and told my family. They contacted the Queen immediately. I had to explain everything to her when she asked why Lord Vader was paying a discrete visit to Naboo."
"So ... she knows that Padmé was my mother?"
Pooja nodded. "But more importantly, she knows that you are Lord Vader's ward. The Queen said, quite rightly, that I cannot serve as senator when I could come under the political influence of Lord Vader."
"But ... he won't interfere," Luke said. "I'll tell him not to interfere!"
"I've already allowed it to happen, Luke. I agreed to say what I've been told to say at this press conference, and in exchange he has agreed to do what he can to ensure the replacement governor is not a tyrant. We suffered so much under Uthon. It was too good an offer to pass up." She shook her head. "One I'm sure Aunt Padmé would have refused on principle, even if the Queen had asked her to. But when I thought about everything Governor Uthon had done, I just had to do it."
"This is all my fault," Luke said, miserably.
"Don't think that for a moment," she said, frowning in concern. "Much good has come of this. And, if I had a choice between not having met you and resigning from the senate, I'd choose resigning any day of the week." She smiled. "Besides, this means Rarn and I are free to be together."
"Is he all right?" Luke felt sick when he thought of what he must be going through.
"It will take him a long time to recover," Pooja said, seriously. "The path ahead will be difficult."
"Tell him I'm sorry that his father is dead," Luke said.
"I'm sure that will mean a lot, coming from you."
"I still can't believe my father killed Governor Uthon!" Luke said, shaking his head. "If only I'd been awake, I could have talked him out of it!"
Pooja gave a half-smile. "He does seem very fond of you. I can't believe that he lets you talk to him like you do."
Luke shrugged. "As much as I hate to say it right now, he is my father."
"You're angry with him," Pooja inferred.
"Luke." Pooja was serious now. "You know you always have a choice, don't you? Don't let him turn you into a Sith Lord. Come to us if you ever need protection."
"Don't worry, I'm sure the Emperor will set him straight if he ever gets that idea," Luke said.
"I hope so," Pooja said. She didn't seem convinced. "Whatever happens, take care of yourself, Cousin."
"You too," he said.
They shared one last hug, and then Pooja had to leave. Luke braced himself as she disappeared out the door, knowing that was just one of several hard goodbyes. Artoo rolled ahead of him as he left the medcenter, guiding him towards Pooja's office. The door was already open, and his grandparents, aunt, uncle, and cousin Ryoo were sitting and standing in the lounge.
"Hi," he said, as he entered the room. "I look a lot worse than I am."
His words didn't reassure Sola. His aunt embraced him immediately, tears spilling down her cheeks.
"You've been so kind to me," he said, returning the hug with one arm. "You all have. I'll miss you."
"Thanks for fixing the speeder," Darren said, shaking his left hand when Sola finally released him.
"My pleasure," Luke said. "Goodbye."
His grandfather gave him a careful hug, clearly worried he might hurt him. "Stay true to yourself, young Luke," he said. "No matter where life takes you."
His grandmother, like Sola, was too emotional to say anything. Her hug was the longest yet. Once he had finished a final goodbye with Ryoo, Luke knew he should leave now. Dragging this out any longer would only make it harder.
"I ... I hope I'll see you all again one day," he said. "I'll never forget any of you."
Artoo then whistled his own goodbye, which made everyone laugh. Luke smiled at his droid, suddenly grateful that his last image of his family was one of happiness.
Vader was tapping the armrest on the pilot's seat, after checking the fuel level for the third time. It had been all right while he had Luke to distract him. Now that he had nothing to do but wait, the memories were threatening to creep into his thoughts.
He reached up and switched on a monitor, deciding to distract himself with the HoloNet. The fallout would be bad if the media had become aware of his presence on Naboo. A quick glance at the INN channel abated that worry, but it was replaced with a different kind of annoyance. A headline blared across the top.
"Lord Vader saved my life, says INN holographer Tarsh Ena."
Vader knew he was only torturing himself by doing this, but he started the holovid playing.
Tarsh was speaking from a medcenter. Quite probably on the Vanquisher.
"... ambushed by a group of young insurgents." The image changed to the footage Tarsh had recorded before she was wounded by the knife.
"Did you think you were going to die?"
Vader recognized Bema's voice as the one asking the questions.
"I didn't know what had happened at first, but when I looked over and saw the gaping wound in my arm, I knew it was serious."
Vader switched it off, unable to stand anymore. If this was what passed for headline news, it seemed his presence on Naboo would remain secret for all eternity.
Footsteps sounded on the ramp, and Vader swiveled the pilot's seat around. Luke stepped into the ship, looking battle-scarred and thoroughly exhausted. Threepio and Artoo were close behind him. Once they were all on board, Vader closed the ramp and reached for the button to start the launch cycle. The sooner they were away from here, the better.
Luke walked forward slowly and shuffled around him to sit in the co-pilot's seat. The ship was not designed for comfort, so the two seats were very close together. His son turned the chair away so he was facing the right corner of the cockpit. Vader knew he was trying to hide his tear-filled eyes.
His son would be more comfortable if he simply left him alone for the moment. The landscape of Theed spread out below them as the ship shot out of the hangar bay, and Vader risked a glance down. It had changed very little since the last time he was here.
When they broke through the atmosphere, leaving the planet behind, a few warning lights lit up on the scopes. Wreckage from Uthon's palace was still floating around in orbit. Vader pitched up to avoid a piece that spun in front of the ship.
He glanced over at Luke and found his son was still staring blankly at the wall. It was clearly time for some fatherly reassurance. It was unfortunate that his best efforts at providing some would likely be a dismal failure. Still, he had to try.
"Son, I want you to know that I understand how hard this is for you," he started, calmly. "They are your family."
Luke turned slightly at the word, letting his hand fall back by his side.
"Family means more to you than anything else," Vader added.
"I wish I could say the same for you," Luke snapped.
Vader turned to Luke in surprise. There was a sheer malice behind the remark that was uncharacteristic of his son. For a moment, Luke seemed equally surprised by his own outburst. But then he rotated his seat so he was again turned away.
Vader tried to gather his strength, knowing that this was going to be difficult. "Luke, this was nothing to do with my feelings. This was about what was best for you."
"I don't believe that for a second," Luke scoffed. "If your reasons were so great, you would have told me before I left for Naboo."
"If I had told you then, you would have refused to go in the first place," Vader said. "You are very insecure about our relationship."
"Can you blame me?" Luke said, sounding incredulous.
"Luke, if I held you in as little regard as you want to believe, I would not be here now. I have abandoned a vitally important operation that will have far-reaching consequences."
Luke was silent.
Vader glanced back at the controls, distracted by a flashing light. They were sufficiently far from the planet to enter hyperspace. He pulled the lever towards him roughly, causing the stars to accelerate into the familiar blue swirl.
"I thought you were in danger on Coruscant," Vader continued. "My mistake was thinking that you would be in less danger on Naboo. I foolishly underestimated the Skywalker tendency to attract trouble."
"Imperial City isn't dangerous," Luke said. He sounded more curious than angry now. "There are guards everywhere. The media was only after me because they thought you were dead."
Luke was too smart to placate so easily. Vader released a weary breath, knowing that his son would keep asking questions until he told him the complete truth.
"I had a dream," Vader admitted, quietly. "It was about you." Vader stared blankly into the depths of hyperspace, trying not to think about how close that dream came to becoming reality. "Your death."
"My death?" Luke sounded stunned. "When?"
Vader turned back and met his son's wide-eyed gaze. "After that counselor droid came to speak with you."
"I guess that explains why you started acting so weird," Luke said. "What happened in the dream?"
"It was unclear. Luke ..." Vader found he could no longer look at his son. He resumed staring out the front viewscreen. "I once became so angry that I ..." His fingers closed around the armrest as he trailed off, squeezing it tightly. There was no point skirting around the issue. He had to say it. "I was afraid that I would cause your death."
Luke did not respond. Vader could not bring himself to reach out with the Force to observe his son's feelings.
"I'm sure that would never happen," Luke said, finally.
All trace of anger had gone from Luke's voice now. Vader felt even worse at his son's misplaced confidence. It was horrifying to remember how he had actually considered staying in the Balin Council Chamber instead of going after Luke.
"I mean, I know I've made you angry sometimes," Luke continued. "Probably at least twice a day. But you've never so much as hit me."
"The dream made me think I couldn't trust myself," Vader explained. "I thought the best thing for you was to send you here. Away from me."
Yet being away from him had almost proved fatal for Luke. It was a cruel irony.
"In any case, Imperial City is not a good environment for a young person like yourself," Vader continued. "I thought you would like your mother's family."
"I loved them," Luke said. "But you're my father. I want to be with you. Why is that so hard for you to understand?"
"You are an optimist," Vader said, finally feeling able to look at his son. "You have this notion in your head of a fantasy father, and you work hard to convince yourself that I can fulfil it. If you honestly acknowledged what I truly am, you would not have been surprised at Governor Uthon's death."
Luke was rolling his eyes at the words. "You do fulfil it. Sometimes. I know you try. And I don't accept for one second that a cold-hearted killer is who you truly are. I didn't mean what I called you in the medcenter. I was just confused and scared when I woke up."
"It was more or less an accurate description," Vader said. "That is my point."
"My mother would have agreed with me," Luke mumbled. "She would have wanted us to be together."
Vader suddenly felt trapped in the small confines of the ship. He'd have preferred it if Luke had remained angry.
"I learned a lot about her while I was on Naboo," Luke added.
"Good," Vader said. "That means you will no longer feel the need to raise the subject with me."
"I never talk about her around you," Luke said, sounding hurt.
"I know," Vader said, realizing he may have been unfair. He forced himself to calm down.
"I understand you find it hard to talk about her," Luke said, glancing at him hesitantly. "Because you blame yourself for her death. I understand."
Vader didn't reply. His son couldn't possibly understand. Nor did he want him too.
"But everything that I learned about her on Naboo makes me more certain than ever that she wouldn't want you to do this to yourself," Luke said, talking quickly.
"Whether she would or not, it does not change the facts, Luke."
Luke sighed in a defeated way. After a few seconds, he added, "I put two mountain daisies on her grave. One from you, and one from me."
Vader stared blankly out the window, wondering why that made him feel so numb. Perhaps the part of him that should be touched by his son's gesture had died a long time ago.
"Her memorial is very beautiful," Luke said. "It's in the middle of a large public garden near a waterfall. I only wish I could have spent more time there. There was so much I didn't get to see." His voice wavered as he spoke. "I barely started getting to know her family, and now I'll never see them again."
"That is very final," Vader said. "If I were you, I would not be so certain about where destiny may take me."
"It's true," Luke said, miserably. "I ruined Pooja's career. I could put the entire family in danger if I ever went back. I can't risk that."
"One day, I will teach you to realize your full potential with the Force," Vader said, turning to face Luke. "You will defeat those who seek to hurt you. When you are powerful enough to protect those you care about, then you can visit your family again."
Luke didn't meet his gaze. He was staring thoughtfully at his one good hand.
"Your path is a difficult one," Vader said. "I know it seems unfair now. But remember, life always has the potential to surprise you."
"I thought life was supposed to be more terrible than death," Luke said, raising one eyebrow.
"Do you truly wish to remind me about your eavesdropping?" Vader said, pointing at his son.
"You don't really believe that anyway," Luke said. "I know I don't. In the medcenter just now, I realized I came very close to dying in Uthon's palace."
"Don't remind me of that, either," Vader interrupted.
"Knowing I could have died makes me think about how great living actually is," Luke continued. "Even the little things, like looking up and seeing a sky full of stars. Imagine never being able to do that again?"
Vader refrained from pointing out that he did not need to imagine such a circumstance.
"So why spend so much time thinking about death when there's life to be lived?" Luke finished, in a rush.
"You view life on very optimistic terms, Luke," Vader said, turning back to the controls. "Much like you view me."
"I know it's not all fun and games," Luke said. "When I lost my aunt and uncle, there were times when I wished I'd died as well. There's nothing worse than the death of people you love. But feeling afraid all the time means you can't even enjoy what time you have together. It's like what you're always saying, that fear can control and cripple someone like nothing else can."
"Unfortunately, it is not easy to simply choose not to be afraid, my son."
Luke nodded. "I know. All we can do is try and be brave."
Vader felt saddened by the words. Luke was a very brave young man. Much like he had been, a very long time ago. But his bravery had not been enough. Not for that.
After a few seconds, he became aware that Luke was actually smiling.
"Hey, I think we just had that conversation about death that Doctor Leeson wanted. He'll be proud of you when you tell him."
"I think he intended for me to give advice to you, rather than vice versa."
"Well, I'm a teenager," Luke said. "As you say yourself, that means I know everything."
"I said that means you think you know everything. There is a large difference. And speaking of your medic, I will leave you in his care when we land on Coruscant. I have to go and see the Emperor."
"Oh stars," Luke said, sounding nervous. "He's going to have a royal meltdown, isn't he? You know, we don't have to return to Coruscant. We could start a new life in the Outer Rim."
Vader looked in his son's direction. "As moisture farmers?"
"No, of course not," Luke said. "As explorers. We could discover new planets."
Vader almost smiled at the words. Luke was absolutely serious. It didn't even occur to him that his idea was completely impractical. His son had coped with being arrested, beaten and shot with the bravery of one twice his age, yet now he seemed barely more than a child.
"I'm afraid that isn't a possibility, young one," Vader said. "Do not concern yourself with the Emperor. You will have enough to cope with on your own." His gaze fell on Luke's right arm, and he felt his anger threaten to rise up and overwhelm him again. "I am sorry I did not get there sooner. You have suffered an experience that no one your age should have to face."
Luke shrugged. "You can make it up to me."
"Do I dare ask?"
Luke turned his chair towards him. "Can I fly us in when we reach Coruscant?"
Vader stared at him, wondering which side of the family was to blame for this insanity.
"With one hand?"
"Well ... I suppose you could push some of the buttons. Or maybe Artoo could help."
Vader remained silent.
"Okay, then, a flight in your Eta-2," Luke said. "Once I have a new hand."
"Not a chance."
"The Incom B-200? You in the co-pilot's seat. Just a couple of laps around the solar system."
Vader considered it. It was a simple ship to fly and almost impossible to crash. "Very well."
"We should do this more often," Luke said, giving him a grin.
"Considering it appears you will be stuck with me for a long time yet, I am sure this will not be the last opportunity."
"I'm glad," Luke said, leaning back in the seat.
Vader didn't know if his son meant he was glad to be stuck with him, or if he was glad this wouldn't be their last opportunity to talk. He was never given the opportunity to ask, as within thirty seconds, Luke was asleep in the chair, his face a picture of enviable peace.
Jira was leaving the balcony. She held the door open to allow Kitster through. Qui-Gon gave him one last sad look and then turned to follow them.
They couldn't hear him. They could never hear him. Vader looked around desperately. This wasn't the Balin council chamber. It was a black, circular room, and the air was filled with fog.
Mace and Yoda were leaving now. Watto was pushing past them. Dex pulled Jar Jar away, and the door shut behind them.
Vader glanced down. The fog was too thick to see if there were any bodies on the floor.
His head snapped up. His mother was allowing Owen to pull her away. She didn't resist. The Lars family left the balcony, not giving him another glance. Now there was only Obi-Wan and Padmé.
Obi-Wan shook his head in the way he'd always done when he was disappointed. Padmé was staring down at her pregnant body, grabbing her stomach protectively. Obi-Wan started to lead her towards the door.
He tried to call on the Force to allow him to reach the balcony. His hand didn't come close to touching the railing, and he fell back hard on his feet.
Obi-Wan turned and walked slowly through the door. Padmé gave him a brief look of utter despair and then joined his former master. The door slammed shut behind them with a horrible finality.
Someone began laughing behind him.
Vader turned around. It was Palpatine. The sight filled him with terror. He backed away and looked desperately for some kind of escape route. But it was a doorless, windowless prison cell that was becoming smaller every second. He gasped for breath.
Then a creaking noise put an end to his escalating panic. He turned around and stared up at the balcony. Someone was coming through the door. He couldn't see who it was, at first, as there was a bright sunlight shining through the opening. But the figure stepped up to the front of the balcony and leaned over the edge.
Luke immediately sat on the railing and started swinging his legs over.
"No, wait!" Vader called. "You will hurt yourself!"
But his reckless son was already dropping down beside him.
"Hurt myself?" he said, smirking. "This is a dream. How can I hurt myself?"
"Dream?" Vader glanced down at his hands. Flesh and blood. "Dream," he acknowledged.
Reality filled his mind. He'd just returned from Bal, having finally herded the population into some semblance of order. It had taken weeks of work.
"You said you'd keep the link open only until I fell asleep," Luke explained. "But you must have fallen asleep yourself."
"Why did I open the link in the first place?" Vader asked.
Luke stared at his boots, looking embarrassed. Then Vader remembered. It had been after midnight when he'd arrived, and he'd been annoyed to find Luke playing in the flight simulators instead of sleeping. It seemed his son's arm had healed nicely while he'd been away. Unfortunately, the invisible wounds still needed attention.
"You had a nightmare about your experiences with Uthon," Vader recalled.
Luke nodded, still looking at his boots. "It wasn't that bad. I really didn't need your - oh, stars!" Luke was suddenly ducking behind him. "Is that the real Emperor?"
Vader turned around. His master was sneering at the sight of Luke.
"He is making you weak!" he said, pointing at him with a bony white finger.
"No," Vader said. "He is part of my dream."
Luke came out from behind. "You wrinkled old lying corpse!" he called.
"Hey, he's only a dream," Luke said. "I've always wanted to call him that."
The dream Emperor didn't seem to hear his son. "What kind of Sith Lord would play the doting father to a spoiled brat?"
"Koochoo sleemo!" Luke shouted back.
"Just because this is a dream does not mean you are allowed to swear," Vader said, pointing at his son.
His son suddenly reached out and grabbed his lightsaber off his belt. In a single movement, he activated the blade and tossed it across the room. It cut through Palpatine, and his master's body fell back into the fog.
"Is he dead?" His son sounded shocked at the results of his action.
"When you throw a lightsaber at someone, they generally do die," Vader said, reaching out a hand to retrieve his weapon.
"But ... it's a dream!" His son sounded shocked.
"My dreams are not full of flowers and sunshine," Vader said.
"I can see that," Luke said, looking around. "Come on, let's get out of here."
"There are no doors."
"Yes, there are." Luke led him to the wall. "There's one right here." He pushed it open, revealing a sunny garden beyond.
"How did you know?" Vader asked, confused.
"It's obvious," Luke said, stepping through. "Are you coming?"
"You don't want to stay here, do you?" Luke was shifting his feet in an impatient manner.
"Go without me," Vader said, waving his son on. "Dream as you wish."
"I'm not leaving you here," Luke said, looking around at the dark, foggy room with a disgusted expression. "This is a nightmare."
"I can handle nightmares, Luke."
"Why would you want to?" Luke was standing half in and half out of the sunlight, staring back into the dark room.
"This is my creation," Vader said, gesturing back into the darkness. "This is where I belong."
"You're just no fun," Luke said, stepping back into the room. He closed the door behind him and folded his arms. They stood in silence for a moment, merely staring at each other, but then Luke suddenly took on a mischievous expression. "Hey, want a beep ball rematch?"
He waved a hand, causing a table, bats and ball to appear to one side. Vader was impressed. It seemed his son had now learned the art of dream control.
Luke ran over to pick up a bat. He pointed at Vader when he didn't immediately follow him.
"You can't use work as an excuse now!"
"I suppose not," Vader said, walking over.
But instead of picking up a bat, he paused beside his son and reached out to rest a hand on his shoulder.
"What?" Luke said, giving him a bemused look.
"Nothing," Vader said, letting his hand drop. There were no words to express his gratitude. "You can serve."
Luke only grinned wider, clearly sensing his feelings. "You'd never have survived without me if I'd stayed on Naboo. Face it."
Vader knew he could only agree.